Study: Three skulls of medieval Viking women were deliberately elongated

Enlarge / Artificially modified skull of a Viking woman at Havor, Hablingbo parish, Gotland.

German archaeologists discovered that the skulls of three medieval Viking women found on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea showed evidence of an unusual procedure to lengthen their skulls. The process gave them an unusual and distinctive appearance, according to an article published in the journal Current Swedish Archaeology. Along with evidence that Viking men on the island may have deliberately filed their teeth, the discovery sheds light on the role that body modification may have played in Viking culture.

When people hear about Viking body modification, they probably think of Viking tattoos, especially since the History Channel series. vikings popularized that notion. But whether actual Vikings sported tattoos is a topic of considerable debate. There is no mention of tattoos in the few surviving Norse sagas and poetry, although other unusual physical features, such as scars, are often mentioned.

The only real evidence comes from a 10th century travel account by an Arab traveler and merchant named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, whose travel account, Mission to the Volga, describes the Swedish Viking traders (“Rusiyyah”) he met in Russia’s Middle Volga region. “They are dark from the tips of the toes to the neck: trees, pictures and the like,” wrote Ibn Fadlan. But the precise Arabic translation is unclear and there is no hard archaeological evidence, since human skin is not normally preserved for centuries after a Viking burial.

But there is evidence of body modification. In the 1980s, archaeologists noticed “strange marks” on the teeth of Viking Age male skulls that appeared to have been deliberately filed down. Since then, about 130 specimens of Norse skulls with filed teeth have been found, 80 percent of them on Gotland. The markings are usually on the upper front teeth and feature horizontal grooves in straight line patterns, although there are also occasional crescent-shaped markings. A 2005 study by osteologist Caroline Arcini of the National Historical Museums of Sweden (who later wrote a book with an overview of the many cases she found of filed teeth among the Norse, among other topics) concluded that the marks were “skillfully made” and that it was It is unlikely that the men in question would have filed their teeth and made the marks themselves.

Other cultures are known to have practiced tooth modification, but it was not typical of medieval Europe and the Vikings did not typically have dental work done. The procedure would have been very painful, but Arcini found no evidence that the practice was part of an initiation or rite of passage for young men, nor were those men likely to be warriors, elite members of society, or slaves. Given the concentration of Gotland men, he suggested that the custom originated on the island or that teeth were filed elsewhere, but somehow the island was a gathering point for those men.

Matthias Toplak (Haithabu Viking Museum) and Lukas Kerk (University of Munster), co-authors of this latest study, suggest that tooth filing may have been a way to identify other members of a closed group of traders. The three 11th-century women with elongated skulls offer a more perplexing enigma. The skulls were excavated from three different cemeteries on Gotland, buried sometime in the second half of the 11th century, fully adorned with ornate jewelry but little else as grave goods. Two were between 25 and 30 years old, while the third was an older woman between 55 and 60 years old.

Artist's reconstruction of the burial (left) of female remains with an artificially modified skull in Havor grave 192, Hablingbo parish, Gotland.  (right) Drawing of the tomb.
Enlarge / Artist’s reconstruction of the burial (left) of female remains with an artificially modified skull in Havor grave 192, Hablingbo parish, Gotland. (right) Drawing of the tomb.

Mirosław Kuźma/Matthias Toplak

Since the three burials are relatively close chronologically, the authors concluded that the three women likely shared a common background involving the practice of skull modification. But there are few clues as to why such modifications were made. According to Toplak and Kerk, there is evidence that skull elongation is practiced in several ancient and medieval cultures, from South America and central Asia to southeastern Europe. The process typically involved tying the heads of small children (usually women) under the age of 3 with wood or cloth.

It is possible that the practice eventually reached Gotland via Bulgaria during this period, although another alternative is that the three women were actually born elsewhere and eventually settled in Gotland, perhaps the daughters of merchants. That could explain why the island has no burials of babies or children that show signs of elongated skulls, suggesting that this was a foreign practice that was not widely adopted in Viking Age Gotland.

It was probably performed on all three women during early childhood “to express their affiliation with a certain social group,” Toplak and Kerk wrote. “On Gotland, however, this sign was probably unknown to society at large. The body modification may have been perceived as an exotic or strange trait that did not prevent the individual from integrating into the community and its predominant funerary customs.”

Current Swedish Archaeology, 2024. DOI: 10.37718/CSA.2023.09 (About DOIs).

Leave a Comment